HKS Study Group Explores Maine’s Experiment with Ranked Choice Voting

Success in a small state teaches a big lesson about electoral reform, it can be done

Written by Daniel Harsha, Associate Director for Communications and Public Affairs

Fed up with the explosion of money in politics, the ever-growing hurdles to voting, and the persistence of gerrymandered legislative districts, a movement to reform many of our democratic institutions and processes has taken root at the state and local levels across the United States over the past decade. In Maine, reformers, fueled by frustration over successive gubernatorial elections in which independent candidates siphoned off enough votes to prevent any candidate from capturing an absolute majority of votes, took up the cause of ranked choice voting. This novel voting system allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference and triggers an instant runoff if no candidate obtains a majority of over 50 percent. 

In 2016, Maine voters became the first to approve statewide ranked choice voting, but like many democracy reform battles, it was no easy task convincing the state’s political leadership and courts to support this new ballot-casting innovation. As part of the Ash Center's spring semester 2019 study group on democracy reform, led by Senior Practice Fellow in American Democracy Miles Rapoport, HKS students had the opportunity to hear firsthand from reformers who helped make ranked choice voting a reality in Maine, as well as from those working to build support for similar voting reforms in Massachusetts. John Brautigam, counsel and senior policy advisor to the Maine League of Women Voters, and Adam Friedman, the executive director for Voter Choice Massachusetts, joined Rapoport in his study group this March to explain how ranked choice voting ultimately became a reality in Maine.

Miles Rapoport
Rapoport is bringing democracy reform experts to campus for four spring study group sessions

Organizing for Change

While the idea had been in the sights of reformers for some time, according to Brautigam, the state’s 2014 gubernatorial elections proved to be a turning point for advocates in Maine. Paul LePage, the state’s blunt-speaking governor, was again elected without capturing a majority of votes, which many observers attributed to the presence of a self-funded independent candidate on the ballot diverting votes from LePage’s Democratic challenger. In 2010, LePage won his first election as governor with only 38 percent of the vote as independents and Democrats failed to coalesce around a single candidate.

In Maine, with its strong history of ballot initiatives, advocates collected enough signatures to place a question instituting a ranked choice voting system on the November 2016 ballot. The question passed with a healthy majority, even though LePage and a number of senior Democrats in the state were opposed. “Don't ever think, ‘well Maine, it's a nice state, everybody likes each other.’ It’s not the case. These reforms where hard fought,” noted Rapoport.

The Resistance

“Then the fun really began,” said Brautigam. “Opponents were turning over ever rock to try to find ways to derail the effort.” The state supreme court effectively struck down the law by issuing an advisory opinion that ranked choice voting would violate a little known provision of the state constitution stating that the governor and legislature were to be chosen by a plurality of voters. Taking its cue from the court, the state legislature voted to postpone the implementation of ranked choice voting until 2021 at the earliest.

For most reformers, with the courts and legislature arrayed against them, this would have been the end of the line, but as Brautigam likes to note, Maine is a unique place. So Mainers committed to ranked choice voting started organizing — again. They began collecting signatures to overturn the legislature’s decision to delay ranked choice voting, which had been approved by voters two years earlier. “It's essentially a repeal of a repeal,” Brautigam explained.

Organizers managed to gather 65,000 signatures across Maine, which had the effect of suspending the implementation of the law delaying ranked choice voting. It also placed the question of whether to delay the implementation of ranked choice voting on the ballot. “It was a challenge to educate the public about what ranked choice voting is when you've never seen it before and at the same time urge them to vote yes on the veto,” recalled Brautigam.

Ultimately, Maine voters voiced their support (again) for ranked choice voting and put the state on course to use the new voting system in the fall for the 2018 midterm elections. The office of Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap had predicted that many voters would be confused by the new system or refuse to rank more than one candidate, in effect defeating the purpose of ranked choice voting.

Rank Choice Voting in Action

“It turned out that 87 percent of voters in that summer’s Democratic primary used the rankings,” said Voter Choice Massachusetts’s Friedman. “Dunlop predicted that ranked choice voting would cost an additional $1.5 million to implement and that it would be a big mess,” Friedman added. “In fact there were only about $100,000 in additional costs, which were for couriers to physically transport ballots and pizzas for the staff in Augusta to do the tabulation.”

Maine’s new voting system was soon in the national spotlight when Bruce Poliquin, running for a third term for Congress as a Republican from the state’s northern and largely rural Second Congressional District, failed to win an absolute majority in the first round of ballot counting during last fall’s general election. His Democratic challenger, Jared Golden, had fallen almost 2,000 votes short of Poliquin in the initial vote count. Neither candidate, however, had received an absolute majority due several independent candidates also appearing on the ballot. After tabulating additional rounds of voting, Golden eventually took the lead, though his certification as winner was delayed by a recount demanded by Poliquin, as well as a federal lawsuit he filed challenging the constitutionality of ranked choice voting. Both gambits ultimately failed and Golden was ultimately sworn in as the first US House member elected by ranked choice voting.

After multiple ballot referendums, court rulings, and lawsuits, Brautigam does not think ranked choice voting is going anywhere in Maine. “At the end of the day, I think people are pretty comfortable with ranked choice voting in Maine now.” For Friedman, Maine’s experiment could prove a valuable lesson for Massachusetts and other states examining possible election reforms. “Maine has shown the way, and we want to keep that momentum strong.”